Immigrant Business Statistics Name: Bjorn Billhardt Country of Origin: Germany Immigrated: 1994 Founded Enspire: 2001 Jobs Created: 30
Annual Revenue: $5 million
German exchange student falls in love with America, and returns to found a multi-million dollar company building innovative products for Fortune 500 companies.
Bjorn Billhardt’s first experience of America came as a teenager when he arrived from Germany as an exchange student to spend a year in Texas. He didn’t intend to stay in the United States, but he was totally enchanted with Texas, and after high school he came right back to attend the University of Texas on scholarship.
“America allowed me to dream big,” says Billhardt. “My parents never went to college, and as an introverted teenager without connections, I was not able to thrive in my home country of Germany. Studying in the U.S. allowed me to gain the education and confidence to prepare for a career in entrepreneurship. If I had stayed in Europe, I know I would have followed a different and less fulfilling path.”
After graduation, Billhardt worked briefly for a Dutch software company, and then for consulting firm McKinsey & Company, but soon felt he needed advanced business training to take his career to the next level. In 1999 he applied and was accepted into Harvard Business School’s (HBS) prestigious MBA program, which had the side benefit of extending his student visa.
The Big Idea
During Billhardt’s second year at HBS, he had a life changing insight while observing business school students playing Lego games in an operations management class. “If you can engage 800 Harvard Business School students with a Lego game, there’s something really powerful about teaching with simulations,” says Billhardt. So, working with a couple of other students, Billhardt developed an interactive, online tutorial on monetary policy for a field study project.
The project was so successful that the Business, Government and International Economy department at HBS made it mandatory reading for first year students. Billhardt was not yet out of graduate school and he already had his first successful product which they named Enspire. However, to make Enspire more than a student project, Billhardt and his co-founders would have to capture the imaginations of Fortune 500 companies that could benefit by simulation training.
America allowed me to dream big. If I had stayed in Europe, I know I would have followed a different and less fulfilling path. –Bjorn Billhardt
The First Obstacle
Before Billhardt could risk his time and personal capital required to build a new company, he needed to be sure that he could stay in the United States after leaving Harvard. In short, he needed one of the highly coveted H-1B Visas, a category of non-immigrant visa which allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations. Getting the visa was a very difficult process, according to Billhardt, and he considers himself very lucky to have gotten in before the present lottery system was implemented. “If I had applied one year later knowing there was a 30 percent chance of failure under the lottery system, I don’t know if I would have started my business,” says Billhardt, adding, “at the very least, I wouldn’t have worked as hard as I did.”
For more on the H-1B Visa program, watch Bjorn Billhardt’s testimony before the United States Senate below:
Bootstrapping All the Way
Billhardt and his co-founders, who were also graduates of the University of Texas, headed back to Austin to start their new business. It was not only cheaper than Boston, but it was home. Between the three of them, they had no real assets, and so had to build the business from he ground up. “It was an all-in kind of experience,” says Billhardt. “Whatever we had, we made it work.” That meant using credit cards and whatever money came in to run the business. Today, Billhardt jokes that Enspire was always profitable “If you bootstrap,” he says, “by definition, you have to be in the black from the very beginning.” The truth is that it was very tough going; they had few assets except their sweat equity, but they never went into debt.
Enspire users learn different strategies and what it’s like to be an executive: how to manage and lead large organizations.
Enspire’s Value Proposition
Enspire is marketed primarily to Fortune 500 companies who have “high potential” programs designed to take business school graduates and train them for management responsibilities. Enspire’s products and services have utilized in a wide range of industries, including manufacturing, financial service, medicine, transportation, and technology. Institutions of higher learning have also used Enspire in diverse ways, from MBA programs to Language Arts.
Simulation training for pilots has long been used in the aerospace industry, but now its reaching a broader audience by appealing to a generation that was raised on electronic and online games. Where traditional lectures and class work have limited impact, simulations are able to teach complicated concepts by “doing”. Through game playing, Enspire’s simulations are teaching new employees how they would compete in a business situation. “They learn different strategies and what it’s like to be an executive: how to manage and lead large organizations,” says Billhardt. “A two-day game is not going to make you an executive, but there is a great bonding experience that happens, and there’s competition, seeing how you stack up against the others. It’s also more fun and engaging,” he adds.
Through game playing, Enspire’s simulations teach new employees how they would compete in a business situation
Immigrant Entrepreneur Success Story
Today, Enspire has more than $5,000,000 in annual revenue, and has created more than 30 American jobs, as well as another twenty overseas positions. Numbered among its customers are some of the most revered names in the global corporate pantheon as well as internationally known educational institutions, including General Electric, Microsoft, MIT, the University of Texas, the World Bank, ConAgra Foods, MasterCard, Wells Fargo, Unilever and Cisco. Enspire’s educational software is used in over 20 countries around the globe, and Bjorn Billhardt became an American citizen in 2012. The saga of Bjorn Billhardt and Enspire is, indeed, a prototypical immigrant entrepreneur success story.
Bjorn Billhardt’s Lessons Learned
- “Being an entrepreneur is one of the most rewarding but also one of the most mentally and intellectually exhausting lifestyles that one could choose. It’s not for everyone and while it sounds very glamorous from the outside the majority of the time it’s very non-glamorous. You have to have an enormous amount of stamina and a willingness to make it work and not give up. My advice is to go into any entrepreneurial venture with open eyes and not with dreamy eyes.”
- “Don’t expect to be anything but a salesperson. What does an entrepreneur do? What’s the actual job? You think that is about making big strategic decisions, and spend all your time on strategy. However, most of the time, you spend selling the company, either to customers or to investors or you sell to your partners. You have to always be ‘On.’ You have to always be the consummate person that no matter what the situation, you can make the best of it, and others believe that you will. That is a sales job, nothing more and nothing less.”
- “It takes an unwavering passion to succeed. There are going to be various shiny objects, job offers etc. that you could work on, and if you are not 100% passionate about the product, the idea, the people that you work with then you’re not going to succeed.”
- “The number one thing you can do wrong as an entrepreneur is to hire the wrong people. If you have an idea that turns out to be not so great, you can find another idea pretty quickly. If the competition overtakes you, you can overtake them, and if you have setbacks, you can recover, but if you don’t have the right people from the start around you, and if you’re not creating the right culture from the start, your business will be almost impossible to change. Once culture is ingrained, it’s ingrained. There are lot of things that will not go right if you don’t have the right people and right culture in place. You’ve got to find the right people if you want to grow.”